Bill Waiser

The starvation summer of 1879

Bison were essentially gone from Saskatchewan territory by 1879.

Many in the West believed the animal would be lost one day, but that was supposed to be at least a decade away.

Assistant North-West Mounted Police Commissioner James Macleod was personally shocked by how suddenly it happened. So too was the new Indian Commissioner, Edgar Dewdney, who claimed in his first annual report that the “disappearance of the buffalo had taken the Government as much by surprise as the Indians.”

It was quite an understatement.

Dewdney toured the North-West during the summer of 1879, and according to his diary, was forever encountering Indians who were anxious about how they were going to survive the coming winter.

Henriette Forget, the wife of Amédée-Emmanuel Forget, clerk for the North-West Territories Council (and Saskatchewan’s first lieutenant-governor), also kept a record of how the disappearance of the bison was playing out at the new territorial capital at Battleford.

“Rumours of starvation, from different parts of the country,” she wrote in late April 1879, “the buffalo having disappeared rendered the condition of the Indians most deplorable, what a question to solve.”

Then, in early May, 200 starving Cree arrived, soon followed by hundreds of others, including Blackfoot, all wanting to see the lieutenant-governor to beg for government assistance.

An uneasy Forget nervously prepared meals in her home with the windows closed and the blinds down — even covering the key hole to keep cooking smells from escaping. But the weeks passed without incident.

Territorial officials eventually convened an emergency meeting at Battleford in late August. It was resolved that “the fears entertained of an approaching famine are only too well grounded … unless a very large supply of provisions is furnished by the government.”

This motion capped two days of official discussion during which letters and telegrams were read aloud and entered into the record, minutes carefully recorded, and regular adjournments held. The contrast between the formality of the meeting and the dire situation on the northern plains was surreal.

It was abundantly clear, though, that extra food supplies had to be secured. What was on hand, Dewdney estimated, would last no more than a month.

Several Indian bands responded to the looming famine crisis by heading south across the international border in search of bison. Canadian government officials knew about this movement but did nothing at first to discourage it, especially because it reduced the number of Indian mouths the Canadian government might have to feed over the winter of 1879-80.

Ottawa, meanwhile, had a much different assessment of the situation.

During a debate on Indian policy, Conservative Prime Minister John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons that “the utter disappearance of the buffalo” was not a bad thing.

“I am not at all sorry,” he stated, “that this has happened. So long as there was a hope that buffalo would come into the country, there was no means of inducing the Indians to settle down on their reserves.”

In other words, the Indians would never abandon their migratory lifestyle and become self-reliant farmers if they continued to pursue the bison hunt.

No one on the opposition benches took issue with Macdonald’s remarks, but they chose to question why the government was continuing to spend so much feeding the Indians — on what the Liberals regarded as a dying race.

Indeed, by the end of the 1870s, Ottawa was already regretting the financial commitment it had assumed in the western numbered treaties. Eleven percent of all territorial expenditures went to meet treaty obligations, an amount that alarmed federal parliamentarians.

This penny-pinching ran contrary to the Indian understanding of the treaty relationship. During the negotiations, both Crown representatives and Indian leaders had talked about the treaties as the beginning of a long-term, reciprocal relationship rooted in the concepts of family and kin. Indians were prepared to accept the Queen’s hand because of the repeated assurances that assistance during the difficult days ahead would not only be forthcoming but generous — in much the same way that Indians had been generous in sharing their territory.

In the end, the disappearance of the bison severely tested the relationship between the Crown and the Treaty 6 Cree.

(Note: Bison is the scientific name for the North American animal. Buffalo are found in Africa and Asia.)

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo courtesy Bill Waiser.
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Email Bill Waiser at bill.waiser@usask.ca
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